The Impact of the Internet on Mental Health During the Pandemic

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By: Lily Velez Updated: September 17, 2021

pandemic anxiety

Highlights:

  • 30% of Americans say they’re concerned they’ve spent too much time on the internet during the pandemic.
  • 28% say social media has had a negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic. 
  • 40% of Americans have sought out online counseling during the pandemic for pandemic-related issues such as anxiety (39%), social isolation (38%), and depression (34%).  
  • 34% of Americans saying their streaming service has been highly essential during the pandemic.
  • 25% of Americans say the internet has been one of the largest contributing factors to their happiness during the pandemic.

 

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency back in January 2020, few could fathom just how much life would change. Within weeks, however, countries instituted lock-downs, curfews, and social distancing mandates as the world scrambled to stay ahead of the virus. 

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, Americans and others the world over needed to adopt new ways for staying in touch with family and friends, whether through online video chats or social media. With this change in lifestyle came new ways for working as well, as millions began to operate out of home offices and make use of virtual conference platforms like Zoom and instant messaging apps like Slack. 

None of this would be possible, of course, without the internet, which may explain why internet use skyrocketed by 50-70% in the immediate wake of pandemic lockdowns. What impact has this increased usage had on mental health in America? The CertaPet team surveyed 400 Americans to learn more about their internet use behavior and how it has impacted their mental health during the pandemic.  

 

Increased Internet Use During the Pandemic

internet use during pandemic

Unsurprisingly, internet use increased during the pandemic, as Americans turned to video conferencing, social media, and other apps as a way to stay connected to the world. However, for many, that connectivity may have veered into excess. According to our survey, 30% of Americans say they’re concerned they’ve spent too much time on the internet during the pandemic.

Is too much time on the internet a bad thing? The internet has become such a staple of American life. We use it for work, for school, and for social interaction. However, how does this constant use impact our mental health? For some, the impact hasn’t been a positive one, given that 18% of survey respondents say the internet has had a negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic.

What are the reasons for this negative impact?

According to 28%, the source comes from social media. A quarter of Americans say their daily social media use has increased by 1-2 hours. With that increase, however, has come exposure to triggering content. 

For instance, 29% of Americans say pictures of family and friends that are missed are the cause of social media’s negative impact on their mental health, while others cite reading pandemic-related news/comments (28%) and reading political news/comments (25%) as the culprits. 

causes of stress during pandemic

But it’s not just social media that’s affecting Americans in the age of social distancing, facial coverings, and quarantine. The pandemic has changed our lives in countless ways. For many, that has meant saying goodbye to a loved one. For others, it’s resulted in limited social interactions that have resulted in isolation and loneliness. The economy has taken a significant hit as a result of COVID-19, and millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Others are also juggling working from home with helping at-home children enrolled in virtual classes. Needless to say, Americans are shouldering more stress than usual. In June 2020, according to the CDC, 40% of U.S. adults reported elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.  

It’s no surprise then that 40% of Americans have sought out online counseling during the pandemic for pandemic-related issues. Survey respondents reported experiencing issues such as anxiety (39%), social isolation (38%), and depression (34%). 

online counseling

According to Google Trends, searches for online counseling surged in April 2020, and the search term ‘online counseling’ has a monthly search volume of 22,000 globally, according to SEO platform ahrefs.com. Popular platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace have improved access to a licensed mental health professional by enabling Americans to speak with a counselor right from the comfort of their own home. 

Other methods of therapy have surged in popularity as well during the pandemic, such as cow hugging, and many have turned to the love of an emotional support animal or psychiatric service dog to help them cope during the age of quarantine.

However, there are additional coping mechanisms Americans have turned to in addition to online counseling, with 34% of Americans saying their streaming service has been highly essential during the pandemic. In fact, 53% of survey respondents say they’ve used their streaming service more during the pandemic, with nearly a quarter streaming 1-5 more hours of content per week and 21% streaming 6-10 more hours of content per week. 

pandemic anxiety and stress

Why have so many Americans turned to streaming platforms during the pandemic? Simply put, entertainment, such as that provided by streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus, offer an escape from the stress and pressures of daily life. A 2013 Netflix survey found that 76% of respondents viewed binge-watching as a welcome refuge from the world. 

Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, says Americans’ enjoyment of binge-watching is due to a chemical process in the human brain. “When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine,” she explains. “This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”

Given the elevated stress levels Americans have experienced during the pandemic, this chase for the feel-good chemical dopamine is understandable. 

 

Benefits of the Internet During the Pandemic

Despite the negative impact on mental health some Americans have experienced in relation to internet use, for others, the internet has been a much-needed outlet. Indeed, a quarter of Americans say the internet has been one of the largest contributing factors to their happiness during the pandemic. The internet’s ability to allow Americans to stay in touch with family and friends is viewed as one of its most important benefits during the pandemic by 59% of survey respondents, as has the ability to access information about the pandemic (42%) and the ability to shop online (40%). 

benefits of internet

 

Final Thoughts

As Americans continue navigating the pandemic, the internet will most likely continue to play a significant role in day-to-day life. However, while the internet brings with it many benefits such as the ability to remain in touch with loved ones, stay up to date with news, and indulge in online shopping as a way of avoiding in-store crowds, for many, too much internet use may negatively impact mental health. 

For these individuals, it’s worth adopting other activities and coping strategies as to avoid relying too much on the internet as a crutch. A new hobby, for instance, can be a fulfilling preoccupation during the pandemic, as can enjoying social connections with friends and family members or savoring the companionship of an animal. And for those who could use a listening ear to deal with anxiety, stress, or other issues, online counseling can be a life-changing resource that offers support, guidance, and compassionate care.

 

This online survey ran via Pollfish on July 27, 2021, with no less than 400 respondents. 


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